An ex libris is a stamp, seal or label designed to herald ownership over a book. It carries the proprietor’s name and it is placed on the first blank page or inside the jacket. An ex libris is, therefore, an arty maneuver for saying “this book belongs to me”.
They have existed since forever but, somewhere along the way, this dandy-like practice fell out of vogue and the art of naming books was left in charge of a pencil or, in the presence of profound confidence, a pen. There is something romantic in owning a stamp, with drawings and ornaments that embellish our name, to impregnate a piece of paper. I yearned for one since I found out about their existence, so when I came across someone who made them, I ordered mine straight away. Because who wouldn't like to feel like a lady right out from the Renaissance stamping her name around?
As soon as the ex libris arrived home, I began stamping all of my books in a kind of summerly baptismal ceremony. The rubber came and went from its cushion to the first page of every book. The fan collaborated by drying the ink. I felt like an artisan interlacing her name into the weave of pages.
When my job was finished, just then, I wondered: Why was I stamping my books, really? Beyond all romantic and princely fantasies, why was I eager to imprint my name on the books? What was the true motive? Was I trying to mark my territory, assert ownership, note and proclaim like an empress: “all these belong to me”? Was I trying to do, with my books, what our mothers did with our school uniforms in order to avoid misplacement, to prevent them from being mistaken among their identical others?
The answer arrived with the sweat of a finished business: No, I didn't want that. Just as it happened to our young selves with our school jumpers or pencil-boxes — or even, beyond all understanding, with our uniform’s shirt — that were left behind in the hall, under the shade of a tree, or in between the leftovers of a school day, I discovered that my stamped books were inevitably heading for that same destiny of loss.
So, I fantasized that every time I lent a book, the borrower would be taking a piece of my body, of my name, with them. That every time my books got lost, as stories inevitably do in the lookout for new readers, some part of me would run away with them. That every time they travelled, crossed borders and hid inside the seams of places where I cannot find them, my underlinings would find new eyes. To stamp and seal was meant to claim ownership and avoid loss, but it was also to accept the destiny of loss (because loss always happens, it never stops happening).
Henry Miller once said that books have the ability to make friends for us; thus, that leaving them lying idle on a shelf is wasted ammunition. To keep books in bookshelves is a foretold failure: they will always end up leaving; they will always get lost. Thus, if that is their end and their beginning, I wish my books will inhabit the lives of other people, their homes, their cities, and imaginations. My stamp could then become a fragment among the many marks left by a genealogy of readers, among an exquisite corpse made of names and notes that will grow with time. I may even inspire the triumphal comeback of the ex libris. I’m thrilled to think about first pages stamped like passports.
Tags with name and surname on our uniforms: maternal effort of care. Stamps with name and surname on books: vain wish not to own but to travel freely. And, well, if this means nothing to anyone else (as it may), at least I will have had the pleasure of feeling like a renaissance lady for a whole summer afternoon.
Text: Marina Novello
Photography: Fer Valente